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Teaching Empathy to Children

Empathy is a lifelong practice that begins in infancy. Support children in learning empathy by using everyday experiences as teaching moments.

Teaching Empathy to Children

Teaching Empathy to Children

Teaching empathy to children is a vital aspect of their social and emotional development. Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, plays a crucial role in building meaningful relationships, resolving conflicts, and promoting kindness and compassion.

In today's fast-paced and often disconnected world, cultivating empathy has become even more essential. By helping children develop this invaluable trait, you can equip them with the skills they need to navigate diverse perspectives, embrace diversity, and contribute positively to their communities.

In this article, we will explore practical strategies and insightful tips for fostering empathy in children, creating a foundation for a more empathetic and caring society.

Young children hugging


What is empathy?

Empathy is the action of understanding and being sensitive to the feelings and experiences of another person. In other words, empathy is the action of sharing the feelings and experiences of another person even though you haven't been in the situation yourself. There are two components of empathy

Emotional component of empathy 

The emotional component of empathy or "emotional empathy" is the ability to share an emotion with someone else. If you’re talking to someone who begins to cry and you begin to cry as a result of their tears and sadness, that is emotional empathy. It’s the ability to share another person’s emotions. 

Emotional empathy example: Have you ever been excited because your friend was excited about their good news? Or, have you ever been sad because a friend or family member was sad about some not-so-good news? These are examples of emotional empathy. Emotional empathy is experienced when someone else’s emotions impact your own emotional state. 

Cognitive component of empathy 

The cognitive part of empathy is all about understanding someone else’s experiences.  A popular quote states, "Before you judge a man, take a walk in his shoes." This quote describes cognitive empathy. It's the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and understand what they're experiencing or see life from their point of view. 

Cognitive empathy example: Have you ever had a friend tell you about something bothering them? But, initially, it didn't seem like a "big deal" to you?" However, as you take the time to listen to the details about why your friend was so bothered, you can come to their side and understand why it was such a big deal to them. Although you didn't experience what they experienced, you can see the situation from their perspective and why it was such a "big deal" to them. That is cognitive empathy. 

Cognitive empathy begins to develop in children as they get older and can be modeled to them through everyday experiences. 

Why is empathy important? 

Empathy is not just a nice-to-have trait; it is a fundamental aspect of human interaction and personal growth. One of the main benefits is that empathy helps foster positive and healthy relationships. Think about the positive relationships in your life. When someone can see life from your perspective and offer help or share emotion with you and offer comfort, not only does it help build solid relational bonds, but it also helps build trust. 

Here are several reasons why empathy is crucial and the benefits it brings:

Builds meaningful relationships 

Empathy forms the foundation for building strong, authentic relationships with others. When we can truly understand and appreciate the feelings and experiences of those around us, we create a sense of trust and connection. By actively listening and showing empathy, we demonstrate that we value and respect others' perspectives, fostering deeper and more meaningful connections.

Resolves conflicts and promotes understanding

Empathy plays a key role in resolving conflicts and diffusing tense situations. When we approach disagreements or misunderstandings with empathy, we seek to understand the underlying emotions and motivations behind the conflict. This understanding allows us to find common ground and work towards resolutions that satisfy the needs of all parties involved. By promoting understanding, empathy helps bridge gaps and encourages open communication, paving the way for peaceful resolutions.

Fosters kindness and compassion

Empathy is closely linked to kindness and compassion. When we empathize with others, we develop a genuine concern for their well-being and a desire to help. By nurturing empathy in children, we foster a sense of caring and empathy for their peers, family members, and the broader community. This empowers them to engage in acts of kindness and compassion, creating a ripple effect of positivity and making the world a better place.

Encourages diversity and inclusion

Empathy enables us to appreciate and accept diverse perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds. By embracing empathy, we break down barriers and biases that may hinder inclusivity and understanding. When children learn to empathize with individuals from different cultures, races, religions, or abilities, they develop a broader worldview and cultivate respect for diversity. This sets the stage for a more inclusive society where everyone feels valued and understood.

Promotes emotional intelligence

Empathy is a cornerstone of emotional intelligence, the ability to recognize, understand, and manage our own emotions and those of others. Through empathy, children learn to identify and express their own emotions effectively. Additionally, they develop the capacity to recognize and respond to the emotions of others, enhancing their interpersonal skills and promoting positive emotional connections.

Use a tool like brightwheel's daily activity report feature to easily record activities, share real-time updates with families, and send customized daily reports for each child. Reduce paperwork for your teachers, save time, and promote quality connections with families.

How can you teach empathy to children?

To help children understand empathy, use everyday experiences at your school to teach and help them practice. Here are some activities and ways to teach children about empathy. 

Teaching empathy to infants 

Infants can learn about empathy within their first year of life, beginning with their interactions with parents and caregivers. When parents and caregivers show love towards infants, they learn what love is and how to respond to love. Loving relationships also help children develop trust, empathy, compassion, and self-confidence. 

You can start by speaking in a soft and comforting voice with the babies in your care. These are the beginning stages of helping babies learn and experience empathy. But it doesn’t stop there. You can also provide infants with responsive care.

Responsive care matches your caregiving to what the infant in your care needs. In other words, it’s observing a child’s temperament and emotional cues to figure out what they need and then nurturing them in response to those needs. For example, imagine holding a snack in your hand and feeding it to the infant or toddler one by one by placing the snack directly in their mouth. You notice them getting fussy and reaching for the snack because they want to hold the snack and feed it to themselves, so you respond by placing the snack on a tray or in a cup to fulfill their needs and desire for independence. This is what responsive care looks like. 

It can also look like narrating to the child while performing daily caregiving activities such as changing their diapers to support the child’s active participation in their care routines while building trust and respect. To be effective at responsive caregiving: 

  • Take the time to get to know the infants in your care. What foods do they like or dislike? What toys do they like or dislike? What seems to interest them? What is their daily schedule? 
  • Communicate with families. Take the time to build a strong relationship with the infant’s families. This will also help you glean the information you need to be a responsive caregiver. Talk to the baby’s family about their personality, emotional cues, daily schedule, likes, and dislikes. 

Infant teacher holding crying infant


Teaching empathy to toddlers and preschoolers

Teaching empathy to toddlers is a crucial step in their early development, as it lays the foundation for their emotional intelligence and social interactions. While young children may still be learning to navigate their own emotions, introducing them to the concept of empathy can help them begin to understand and respond to the feelings of others.

Below are some strategies and activities to help teach this essential concept.

Use emotion cards

For toddlers and preschoolers, you can create emotion cards or boards that display the various emotions humans feel daily. Use the emotion cards to ask and discuss how everyone (adults included) is feeling today.

If a child or adult mentions that they're sad, you can say, "What can we do to help our friend feel better?” This will help children develop critical thinking skills and the ability to put themselves in someone else's shoes.

Invite children to talk about their emotions 

Open the lines of communication with the children in your care to discuss their emotions. Incorporate daily class check-ins as a safe space for children to express their feelings. Use prompts such as "How are you feeling today?" or "Is there anything that made you happy or sad recently?" This encourages children to reflect on their own emotions and share them with their peers, fostering empathy and understanding.

    1. Teaching talking to young child
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Read stories about emotions 

During circle time, include stories about empathy, kindness, and emotions. As you read, pause to take a minute to discuss the characters' emotions and ask the children questions about those emotions. Pause to explore the character's feelings throughout the story. You can ask questions like, "How do you think the character feels?", "Why do you think they feel that way?", "How can other characters in the story help?"

Some children’s books that explore these topics include: 

Make cards when someone is out sick 

When a classmate or a teacher is out sick, you can encourage your class to make "get well" cards. Allow the children to be creative and add their spin to the cards. Encouraging the children to make a card when someone isn’t feeling well is a great way to teach them how to be empathetic toward others. 

Encourage helping others

There are many daily opportunities to help others. You can help the children in your care learn empathy by pointing out those opportunities. For example, if one child is having trouble cleaning up or picking up a toy, you can ask other children to provide help. 

Celebrate positive behavior

Another way to help children under five learn empathy is to celebrate their positive wins and behaviors. Pointing out the positive behavior will help children recognize what empathy looks like. For example, if a child sees another child in distress and brings them a toy for comfort or offers a pat on the back to make them feel better, you can point this out to the class and say, "That was so thoughtful of you to bring your friend a toy to help them feel better." 

Lead by example

The best way to teach empathy to children is to lead by example. You can model active listening and respond to the children with empathy through your actions and words. You can model expressing your feelings and problem-solving while introducing new emotional vocabulary words.

Get families involved

By creating a strong partnership with families, teachers can reinforce the concept of empathy both at school and at home. Consider hosting family-child workshops where families collaborate on empathy-building projects or sharing resources and reading materials that focus on empathy and emotional intelligence.

Additionally, teachers can send regular communication that highlights the value of empathy and suggests ways for families to incorporate it into their daily lives. Encouraging parents to discuss emotions and model empathetic behavior at home further reinforces the lessons learned in the classroom.

Parents comforting a young child


Learning empathy is a life-long journey

By creating a supportive and inclusive environment, teachers can empower children to understand and empathize with the emotions of others. Through open discussions about emotions, modeling positive behavior, and involving families in the learning process, teachers can lay the foundation for empathy to flourish in children's lives. By instilling empathy at an early age, we equip children with the essential skills needed to navigate relationships, promote kindness, and build a more compassionate society.

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